When Carlos Kanzler, 17, moved with his family to Grantville, Ga, from their home in Venezuela, he was shy and didn’t speak much English. But when exploring the small town by foot one day, he saw a familiar sign and knew he belonged in his new community. With a big smile remembering the moment, he exclaimed: “There is a library here!”
Now Carlos has become a fixture at the Grantville Library, where he volunteers at least three times a week, providing translation to Spanish-speaking patrons, helping at events such as the Summer Food Program and shelving materials to bolster the capacity of the two full-time staff. Along the way, he also has gained confidence in social situations, improved his English and learned customer service skills. He is the library’s only volunteer, and one of 10 overall for the four-branch Coweta Public Library.
“Carlos has been a gift to us,” said Branch Manager Marie Vielot. “Having someone who can speak multiple languages opens the door to new patrons. Carlos also is a musician, and he shares his time and talent. He is irreplaceable, but as he prepares to leave for college next fall, we have realized the need to think strategically about recruiting volunteers. We want to find people with specific skills to help us broaden our impact.”
Larger library systems like Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System (AFPLS) have volunteers at all 34 branches. In 2017, AFPLS volunteers served more than 60,000 hours, which is the same amount of hours served by 30 full-time employees.
While many volunteers help with clerical tasks or shelving materials, those with a specific talent or interest are cultivated as much as possible. For example, a volunteer in Sandy Springs teaches a monthly Korean brush painting class, and a retired banker brings his therapy dog to East Roswell Library to help children build reading skills.
“This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” said Dave Hobe, owner to Fergus the Bearded Collie, who was greeted warmly by every patron in East Roswell when he recently visited. “Fergus brings joy to people. There was one child who struggled with reading and was so nervous the first time he came here. Now he sits right down next to Fergus and begins to read out loud.Kids build confidence when they read to Fergus, and they have fun.”
Volunteers are often passionate library lovers who not only provide extra hands and talent, but also become strong advocates in their communities.
Many library systems cultivate teen advocates as volunteers during the busy summer months to help with children’s programming, such as Houston County Public Library System’s Teen Ambassador Program; Chattahoochee Valley, where the teen program has grown to 60 volunteers in just two years; and in Forsyth County, where some youth have transitioned from participating in Summer Reading Program as children to volunteering in high school, with some volunteers also seeking and finding employment at the library as adults.
“The teens help us in many ways, and they earn volunteer hours for National Honor Society and other clubs,” said Stephen Kight, deputy director of Forsyth County Library. “They also share their ideas – they help keep the library cool for all ages.”